Thursday, June 17, 2010
The Radiation Risk. While America is often considered a leader in the field of medicine, our reliance on high powered tests to diagnose serious medical conditions has some side effects. Specifically, too much radiation exposure increases your risk of developing cancer. Well, then what am I, Cancer Girl, worried about you may ask? Good question. You may recall in previous posts I lamented about how alone I feel in the hospital. When the nurse approaches you wearing a floor-to-ceiling sterile gown, sterile blue booties, and giant yellow plastic gloves that cover her arms up to her elbow, all to protect her from being exposed to the medicine that is about to go into your arm.... I'm just sayin', it could send the wrong impression! When I go in for a scan, the technicians don't just put on protective clothing or move behind a protective window, instead the entire room clears and they actually leave the room and go down the hall. So, yes, I might feel a little isolated! These moments of feeling like a guinea pig or lab rat were one thing in the beginning. In the beginning I was so focused on kicking cancer's butt that I didn't stop to worry about what exactly was going into my body. Just two weeks after my first chemo treatment, I could feel chunks missing from the giant hard mass in my left breast, so instead of worrying about any long term side effects, I said, "Bring me more!" But now, after five years of being poked and prodded with no end in site, I'm starting to feel a little sorry for myself and I'm starting to wonder what my end goal really is. Let's say I live until I'm 80, I know what otherwise healthy 80 year olds look like. What in the world will I look like? What other ailments might I have? What am I doing to myself? I've made myself feel better by reminding myself that many of my peers are out on all-night benders in New York City and I'm not. Ozzy Osbourne turned out relatively OK. I don't really have too much to worry about, but then this article came across my Google Alerts. Suddenly, that nagging suspicion that perhaps I was indeed a walking freak were suddenly confirmed. Said article discusses the issue mostly from the perspective of the average American, the average healthy American, reminding me that I am, in fact, not an average healthy American. It argues that we should fight for doctors to rely less on tests like CT scans because too much radiation carries risk. Frankly, in reading the article and looking at the numbers they provide, you should all breath a sigh of relief. One CT scan to diagnose whatever brought you to the ER at 3am will not kill you. Instead, I am taking one for the team! The article compares our exposure to radiation from medical tests to the radiation exposure of survivors of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster and studies of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors. Those survivors had between "50 and 150 millisieverts of radiation. A chest or abdominal CT scan involves 10 to 20 millisieverts." Let's put those numbers into real life Big Girl measurements. For five years, I have gotten chest AND abdominal CT scans every three months. Those scans are unpleasant enough because I have to sit in the hospital drinking nasty pink fruit punch mixed with metallic tasting drugs for two hours (thank you, thoughtful readers who sent me flasks and Flamingo Shaped Beer Bongs to help make those sessions more bearable) but now we also have to do some Big Girl math. 4 CT Scans a year X 20 millisieverts a scan = 80 millisieverts a year X 5 years = 400 millisieverts of radiation Well goodness gracious, its like I lived through Chernobyl and both Japanese A-Bombs!!! This math also reminds me of another funny little test I get called a MUGA scan of my heart, which happens, coincidentally enough, in the hospital department called "Nuclear Medicine." After every MUGA scan, which I get every 6 months to make sure my heart is functioning properly, I am given a tiny little card that the technicians tell me I am to carry with me for approximately 48 hours. Basically, this little card tells officials that I am radioactive. Apparently, some poor patient left his MUGA scan and drove back to his home in New Hampshire, but on the way home he got pulled over by a state trooper who had some special bomb sniffing equipment in his car. At this time, the little notification cards were not invented yet and the poor soul was dragged through quite a few hours of explanation.So, thank you, Google Alerts for confirming that I am in fact, Radioactive Man! I'm even more of a survivor than I thought. But on a more serious note, as our country advances with medicine, more and more patients are surviving many years with serious illnesses like cancer and other ailments that 20 years ago would have been a death sentence. How do we, as a country, support these survivors? How do we even know what to do, or what we will need to do in the long term, to support one another?